August 18, 2016

3D Art and Animation

Back as a kid, I started to enjoy art when I realised I could bring it to life. I joined every competition on AOL and won a few monthly challenges too. “Wet Road” and “Under Water” if memory serves me right.

At the age of around 19, Autodesk released a product called Autodesk Animator Pro for MS DOS. I got a copy and started to dabble and within a few days the adventures of “worm” was born. I did a series, “Worm dies on mountain”, “Worm eats worm” and many others. I loved it. Shortly later I started to use 3D Studio for MS DOS. This is far from the 3DS Max product we know today. Back then you had a Lofter window. a Shaper window etc and it was much more difficult to use. Regardless I persevered and created the logo of the company in 3D, made it spin and took it into work to show the boss.

t_silk  T_PowerD

He loved it and said “How can we make money from this”. Now this company was a software house so the obvious thought was a screensaver for windows 3.1. After some trial and error we managed to produce a screensaver of the company logo spinning in 3D around the screen. The clients loved it and wanted one of their own. So, I now found a new role. I was a 3D artist/animator producing bespoke art for clients such as PG Tips (Papa’s got a brand new bag promotion), Toshiba with laptops that flew around the screen that you could shoot out the sky, Krazy Kavy which was a caveman that bungee jumped down the screen, Ciba Vision and their launch of Focus Dailies. That was a great one, the contact lens was a little character that became Elvis, a war hero, a spy etc and had loads of different cut scenes. The Beatles, IBM, Bunny Shoot, Saab, Wella, Nike etc. We were the premiere screensaver creators in the world at the time.

While at silkmoth I was privately approached by a man from Wales who was heading up a team that needed me to produce all the environment art for a series of games called 3D Pets. My boss was happy for me to do it as long as the work didn’t interfere with my daily duties. So, in my spare time I produced the environments for 3 PC games which you can see a small part of them behind the pets here:

koi_koi 61J50SA12YL

This was great fun. Working with the animator and programmers was a new experience. The only sadness at this point in my life was that I was completely conned. I never got paid and everybody went silent when I tried to contact them as it was all remote work. I believe Neechez innovation bought the rights to the games but I was too naive back then to claim copyright theft. Interestingly The 3D Pet games shot up the budget charts reaching position 5 knocking tomb raider down to number 6. So, I learnt a hard lesson, never work on the promise that when they get paid so do you.

While at silkmoth Ltd I also created hundreds of animated GIF’s which we gave away on the company website as freebies. This generated huge amounts of traffic to the site which in turn converted to orders on our bespoke products.

uk

When the dot.com boom happened the 3D side was pushed aside and website development took over. You can read about that in the Programming & Apps section of my site if you wish.

So, after 9 years at silkmoth Ltd I decided that the company was moving in a direction away from my passion of programming and art. With regret I left with the intention of going to University to get a degree in Animation.

After searching around I decided that Bournemouth Uni sounded the best. They used 3D Studio Max which I was very familiar with so contacted the course tutor and sent in some work. As a mature student, I was accepted on the course and so at 34 years old my days at Uni began. In hindsight I really wish I had studied harder in school to get into Uni sooner. It was a fantastic time and would recommend it to everybody.

So, our first day on the course “3D Cad Modelling and Animation” the head of year asked the group “What is running?”. There was complete silence around the room of 30 or so students so I put my hand up and with a serious pondering expressions said “It is a state of constantly falling forwards”. I have no idea where that came from, maybe I read it somewhere. There were a few giggles from the back of the room. The lecturer burst out laughing and said “Not heard that one before, good one”. And so Uni began.

Our first animation was to model a Clamp from a CAD Blueprint.  Everybody was a little nervous on this one as we had to understand draft drawings.  Once modeled to spec we were asked to animate it coming together in a creative way.  Here is my little attempt.

Another random day we were told to research “Tanks” and that was it. A few weeks later, out of the blue we were told that we would be doing an exam. This set most people into a state of panic. What? Exam? We haven’t prepared! shouted some of the students. “No?, well this will give me a good idea how much you have learned.” said the lecturer. We sat down and turned over a paper. We had to model, texture and animate a full size tank in 8 hours. Love it. I dived in. Those 8 hours flew by. I was happyish with my tank. The tracks moved on a rig which I was pleased with but my texturing was rushed and basically consisted of a box mapped camo pattern over the entire tank. Still got a merit though.

We then modeled the APU from the Matrix starting with a box for the toe and building from that using standard poly editing tools, extrude, chamfers, bevels. lofting along splines.  Then we had to rig it and animate it.  The explosion is naff I know but it was a fun project nonetheless.

Our next assignment was to produce a short movie of anything we like, as long as it got approval. I have had this idea for years now that a person is walking along the street in a happy daze unaware that life around them is singing and dancing to lifes beat. I called it The Nature Dance. A woman walked past houses with flowers in the windows that looked at her as she skipped past, the grass in the field had ripples running through it like there were huge bass speakers under the soil, trees moved to the music in the video and an african themed tune played throughout, it was done. phew.
I didn’t like it. It was not good enough to what I could see in my mind. For some reason I spent far too long modelling assets like the houses when this is really just filler content. Looking back I can see that I should have concentrated on the key storyline and let the filler content fade into the background. I should have had the mindset of a short movie, not just another animation.

When it came to our final year I pushed myself and chose something difficult, “A study of light and Refraction” in modern rendering engines. I tested light refraction in engines like Maxwell which uses a physically correct lighting engine to produce results. This was a great journey, I was specialising in something. We also had to produce another animation to go with our dissertation. That was harder to do.

Most mornings I went to the local Gym which helped me think. While pushing my last few reps and obviously struggling, a bloke opposite came over and helped settle the bar. He introduced himself as Bruce Bedlam and we got chatting. It turns out that Bruce was the inventor of the Bedlam Cube. A tetris style puzzle. After awhile he told me that he was also a historian and had a theory on Stonehenge that he has tried to get into the limelight for the last 30 or so years. I asked him if there is anything to do with light and refraction in his theory and to my surprise he shouted YES YES!. Bruce is a really interesting individual with so many stories of adventure in his life that at times you thought he was making it up. Turns out he didn’t make anything up. He really had traveled the world looking for a golden egg!.

I decided to base my final year project on his theory and produce an animation of what he thought Stonehenge was. The light and refraction part of my research was that Bruce believed glass was used in the Stonehenge apex.
crystal3
We did several real world tests with huge glass objects that Bruce had made, passing natural sunlight through them to see how it split the light onto surfaces at varying distances. The results were quite astonishing and very disco.   Bruce was ecstatic that his vision of what StoneHenge felt like came alive on the screen.  On show day at the end of Uni we had an entire room to show off the project along with scale models that Bruce had made.  Radio and TV stations turned up to interview us, it was all extremely exciting stuff.
stonehenge

After University I joined Optima Design Services as a 3D Artist.  Optima are a 3D Product Design Company but they had a VR division named True2Life which produced 3D models for viewing over the web.  My interview was simple.  Sit down, create a fish tank with a gold fish swimming around.  You have 2 hours. I created a traditional bowl fish tank with weeds growing up from a gravel base, a small cave and a gold fish mapped from a real one.  A simple bone rig for making the fish animate and the fins had animated bend modifiers on them.  I animated it following a path so it swam around the bowl.  The water on the surface used vertex animation for a slight ripple and that was that.  They liked it, I was hired.

My first job was to aid the artists editing window blinds for a conservatory company.  They had 300 blinds to adjust and I found myself repeating the same vertex editing over and over for days.  Urrrgh,  I asked if we could automate the process using maxscript and they said no, no follow the process we have shown you.  So in my lunch break I wrote a helper script to aid in the repetitive process.  Instead of fitting one blind every 3 hours I could now fit a blind in about 3 minutes saving my wrist from RSI.  Shockingly, the lead artist resigned followed by another developer a few months later.  In hindsight I think they were hoping to go back to China but did not want to leave True2Life until somebody could take over.

I was now in charge of all 3D production at True2Life.  This work continued for about another two years until Optima Design Services moved me into their part of the business as an Virtual reality Developer and Programmer.

River Intake2
This was a rendering showing a water filtration system for a client.

topview  fulltop  Full Size interior

BlueChip wanted a video to show how their new data centre would look when finished.  At this point the data centre was just beyond the blueprint stage so development was still in planning.  After modelling the building to the architectural blueprints and then creating a test fly through, BlueChip could see that some of the main corridors would need to be widened by several feet as certain equipment was too big.  That is the beauty of animation prior to construction, you get a much better representation of how a building will look saving thousands in costly building renovations.

Full Size jungle

The above environment was created for a project that required an animated pan shot of a jungle.  I used e-on VUE with the 3D Studio Max plugin so I could animate other elements in Max. The vegetation was very realistic and produced a great clip. Modelling this environment manually would have taken considerably longer without Vue.

SMS Group
While working at Optima, one of the ex-design engineers worked for SMS Group.  We were asked to produce an animation showing one of their guides using CGI, how the parts disassembled and what the various features are.  Using 3D Studio Max, Vray, Adobe After Effects and other tools I put together this animation.  SMS provided raw CAD data and a rough storyboard of what they wanted to happen.  It was a fun project with many hurdles.  Engineer CAD data is always a challenge to get into a visualisation tool like Max and animating with VRay can be quite time expensive without knowing how to get the best out of it.   Looking at how tools such as SolidRocks optimizes render settings can really help you understand what does what.  Many rendering faults can occur with animation such as pixel crawl, sparkles, shadow flashing which all have to be ironed out in test cases before starting the full render image sequence.